Unlike say, the 1950s, when rock and roll began, or the 1970s, which spawned punk and disco, the 1990s wasn’t an era in which any radically different genres of pop music emerged. Instead, it was a time in which styles morphed and/or merged into music that often sounded both edgy and oddly familiar.
One example of that old-into-new evolution was the rise of grunge, a hybrid of punk and the hard-rock sound of 1970s and 1980s heavy metal, which was popularized in the early 1990s by Seattle-based bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Grunge’s raw, jarring sound was matched with lyrics that usually seemed to express a downbeat, even nihilistic worldview that was drenched in self-deprecating irony; “I feel stupid and contagious / here we are now, entertain us,” Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain sang in “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a hit single whose name sprang from a deodorant marketed to teenagers. Grunge devotees rebelled against the idea of rock stars as glamorous, fashionably coiffed celebrities, instead dressing in flannel shirts and ragged jeans and sporting unruly long hair.
Grunge’s gloominess and rebellion eventually merged into a broad mid-1990s genre of so-called “alternative” rock, which included all sorts of performers whose métier was swimming against the perceived mainstream—ranging from the harsh “industrial” sound of Nine Inch Nails, to the jangly rock and emotionally cathartic lyrics of Live. But singer-songwriters such as Tori Amos, whose piano melodies were matched lyrically with dense metaphors and feminist themes, also were considered alternative. And bands such as Faith No More and Rage Against the Machine, which blended heavy metal, punk rock and rap music, defied any simplistic label.
But the decade’s headline story may have been the meteoric rise of rap. Though a few rappers had managed to break into the mainstream charts in the 1980s, most had trouble even getting their records played on black radio stations. But as record producer Russell Simmons told the Los Angeles Times in 1990: “They always look at me funny when I say that rap is going to get bigger. But it is going to get bigger, much bigger.” And it did, in large part due to the creativity of “West Coast” rappers such as Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg, who melded smooth R&B-funk beats and melodies with lyrics that explored the dangers and difficulties of life in the streets. The West Coast developed a bitter and sometimes violent rivalry with East Coast rappers such as Notorious B.I.G., AKA Biggie Smalls, and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, whose music had a similarly smooth flow and gritty edge. The late 1990s also spawned Eminem, a white rapper from Detroit whose inventive rhymes sometimes conveyed violent and disturbing messages, but also captured the realities of growing up poor in a trailer park.
Country music also exploded in popularity in the 1990s, as the old-school Nashville sound of performers such as George Jones and Tammy Wynette gave way to newer artists such as Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, who toned down the twang and blended rock and pop into their work.